Some old flames take years to flicker out. I met Eric* when I was back home in Seattle during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was tagging along with a friend to a party at his house — a massive, ramshackle Victorian where he lived with a dozen other college dudes. He was tall with dark hair and blue eyes, the kind of guy who’s only recently become handsome and is endearingly unaware of it.
We ended up talking for hours. He was warm, funny, and a good listener (not always an easy quality to find in a 20-year old man). It might have ended there, but my friend was dating one of his legion of roommates so we kept running into one another. Eventually I got tired of waiting for him to ask me out, and blurted out, "Are you going to ask for my phone number or what?"
He called me later that night.
"Listen," he said, “I’m calling because we’re doing Edward Forty Hands tonight. I’m pretty sure I’m going to want to drunk-dial you later, so just go with it, OK?"
He did call and we had a long, sometimes nonsensical conversation that went on for a few hours before we both fell asleep on the phone. We went on our first date soon after. It was one of those epic, full-day adventures where we went to downtown Seattle, took a ferry across the sound, and then met up with friends for dinner. I was smitten.
When September came and I had to go back to school in California, I made a half-hearted attempt to break up with him. It was a mission doomed from the outset, considering I was already in love. He told me he didn’t think we should end things.
"But it will never work," I said.
"Maybe, but I want it to last as long as it can," he said.
We made it to the end of the fall semester before he broke things off. It was too hard, he said. Eery time I came home for a visit, he was bereft when I went back.
"But don’t you love me?" I asked him.
"I don’t think I love you the way you love me."
"I don’t think I love you the way you love me."
It’s the kind of thing that someone says to you in a breakup that both shatters you and sets you free; it made the breakup feel clean and final. We saw each other when I was home for winter break to say a proper goodbye; we agreed that after some time had passed we’d try to be friends. In addition to being in love with him, I really liked him. We had a friendship that seemed worth saving irrespective of our romantic status. We knew each other’s families and friends; letting go forever and entirely seemed too punitive.
I was heartbroken but my senior year provided plenty of distractions: There was a national championship run for my tennis team and a brief romance with an angsty poet. After graduating, I spent a shiftless summer living with my parents and tying to gather the courage to move to New York. Around Labor Day, with my plane ticket finally purchased, and only two days left before I was set to move, I finally reached out to Eric and left him a voicemail. A few hours later, he called me back.
"I'm glad you called me back," I confessed. "I was a little worried you wouldn't."
"What do you mean called back?" he said.
"I left you a voicemail earlier this afternoon," I said.
There was a lengthy pause on the other end. "I didn’t get any voicemail."
All these many months without any communication and we’d both picked up the phone to call one other within hours. It was uncanny, and to me, felt loaded with meaning.
If getting back together with a boyfriend who lives in your hometown when you’re about to move across the country seems like a doomed proposition, it was. But the first person I’d deeply loved was back in my life; logic was no match for me. We stayed together for about a year. I saw him when I came home; he came to visit me in New York; we vacationed with one another’s families. And then came Berlin.
Eric’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer right before we first met. She wanted to go to Europe with her kids while she was still healthy. I’d recently lost my grandmother and she’d left me some journals about her time in the Germany during the war and I wanted to go visit the places she’d been. Eric and I agreed to meet in Berlin for a few days.
A decade later, my memories of that trip are still excruciating. The moment he met me in the hotel, I knew something had changed. It was nothing he’d done or said, just a shift that felt irrevocable, almost chemical. I locked myself in the bathroom for an hour while he went for a walk. We carried on with the trip, did touristy stuff, and never really discussed what was going on. Eric was reserved by nature and when it came to big things, practically mute. He was never the one to broach the hard subjects first, never the first one to say, "I love you." It had already been a point of contention and now it looked like it might be a fatal flaw.
As I boarded the train to Hanover he told me he loved me. I told him I loved him too, knowing it was all too late.
I called my mom from my hotel sobbing, at last able to say out loud what had settled in the pit of my stomach like a lead weight: I wasn’t in love with Eric any more.
I called him with I got back to New York. Given the distance, Eric and I were doomed to have all of our hard conversations over the phone. He seemed to take the breakup well; I suspected he might have been feeling the same. We agreed to stay friends.
When I went home in December for the holidays, I called him. He answered amid a cacophony in the background.
"Where are you?" I asked him.
"I’m in a bar in New York," he said.
"Yeah, I moved here."
He assured me it had nothing to do with me. I knew his best friend had come to the city to try to make it as a DJ, but the move felt baffling. He was from a small town in Washington and was so close with him mom and sisters, and it never struck me that he had the kind of outsize ambition that makes someone relocate to New York. Frankly, it was the last thing I thought he’d do.
In New York, we saw each other once in a while, trying to maintain the fiction of our friendship. Once, I saw him in one of my favorite brunch spots, leaving with a girl just as I was settling in with a mimosa. Another time, I ran into him on the street while he was on a break from the restaurant where he worked.
Then came my 26th birthday party. I invited him because we were friends. He stayed after everyone had left and we talked late into the night. We finally discussed Berlin, how brutal it had been for both of us. I hadn’t handled it quite as well as I’d thought I had. I was bowled over by how emotional he was during this conversation.
"I guess I just didn’t think you really loved me that much," I told him.
He looked at me shocked.
"I did love you," he said. "I do love you."
And of course, I loved him too.
For another couple, this might have been the moment everything falls into place. But at 26, I wasn’t ready to try for real with Eric. Somehow, I knew I’d mess it up again. So I told him we shouldn’t do this right now, that we’d only get one more shot. "Let's wait," I said.
Secretly, I thought it might still be us in the end.
I guess I was arrogant or naïve or both to think I could just put things on ice like that, that Eric would hold a space in his life for me when I was ready. I moved back to Seattle a couple of years later. We saw each other from time to time when he was home visiting his family or when I was in New York. When I saw him, it felt like the ghost of what might have been, what might still be, hovered between us. We both dated other people, of course, but at least for me, the flame hadn’t gone all the way out. Secretly, I thought it might still be us in the end.
Shortly after I moved back to Seattle, we had a big, messy tragedy in my family and in the ensuing grief, I felt a pull toward Eric once more. He seemed ambivalent when I told him I wanted to try again but said he’d give it some thought. Then he disappeared from my life, this time permanently.
We’d purposely never connected on social media, as though somehow doing so would minimize what we had. Whatever friends we’d once shared had drifted away over the decade we’d known each other. So it was authentically a surprise when I Googled his name on a whim one day to discover a big, full-color story in the New York Times' Vows section — a long piece that included the charming story of how he’d met the pretty, blue-blooded brunette who was now his wife.
Had I not already met and fallen in love with the man I myself would marry, I’m sure that this would have gutted me. Instead, it simply felt surreal.
He was my first real love, the one that helps our hearts and minds determine what love looks like, setting the bar however high or low for all those who follow.
When I think of Eric now, I hope with all my heart that he’s happy. He and I weren’t meant to be, or else we would have been. He was my first real love, the one that helps our hearts and minds determine what love looks like, setting the bar however high or low for all those who follow. Eric set the bar high — he was kind, respectful, and generous — which meant that I knew what love looked like when I found it again.
My husband is a better match for me as I’m sure Eric’s wife is a better match for him — and of course, there is timing, maturity, and all the tiny ways in which the stars have to align for two people to choose to commit to each other. For nearly a decade, Eric and I felt like ships passing in night, barely missing each other. Until, at last, our courses took us in different directions for good; toward happy endings all our own.
*Name has been changed.
Andrea Dunlop is the author of She Regrets Nothing — about a social-climber who reconnects with her long-lost, wealthy cousins in New York — on sale now.
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